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What you can and cannot do in selecting your representatives

Jack Lessenberry

We know the most important job in state government is that of governor, but the next two top jobs are far more important than we tend to realize.

Michigan’s attorney general is the top lawyer for the entire state, both for state government and the interests of all the citizens.

Meanwhile, whoever is secretary of state is responsible for pretty much everything that has to do with voting and elections – not to mention driver's licenses, automobile and other registrations, and regulating notaries in the state.

We elect these officials by a statewide vote in November. They serve four-year terms, and can be re-elected only once.

But here’s the odd thing about these jobs. We the voters have the final say in November, but have virtually no say in who the major political parties choose as their candidates.

We can and do determine who the Democrats and Republicans run for comparatively insignificant seats in the state Legislature by picking those candidates in the August primary election.

But we aren’t allowed to have a say in the nominees for attorney general or secretary of state. The state constitution gives that right to the political parties who make those choices at their annual state conventions, both of which are happening this weekend.

Democrats are meeting in Lansing, Republicans in Novi.

This year, the party leadership in both cases has already worked out their choices. Republicans will re-nominate their incumbents, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson.

Democrats will take Mark Totten for attorney general and Godfrey Dillard for secretary of state.

These candidates are all well qualified – which hasn’t always been the case.

Democrats once nominated one candidate for secretary of state who refused to campaign and another who told me he wanted the job mainly because he could plaster his name on all the branch offices in the state and then run for governor.

In other years, people who some would call party hacks have refused to nominate candidates who were clearly more qualified and likely would have been more popular. Republicans tend to shoot themselves in the foot over ideology.

Democrats have tended to nominate losers in the interest of ethnic and gender-based ticket-balancing acrobatics.

And somehow, not having primaries for these very important jobs doesn’t strike me as sensible or fair.

Sure, you can argue, as some do, that the public doesn’t have the knowledge to know who would be the best choice for attorney general.

But you could easily say that about governor or congressman or president. We could change this and make it more democratic with a state constitutional amendment, but there isn’t any special interest group willing to put a lot of money behind this to make it happen.

So don’t bet on anything changing. Meanwhile, the Democrats are going to be fighting this weekend over whether to nominate a judicial candidate who may not be sufficiently pro-choice.

Republicans will be fighting over whether a potential nominee for the University of Michigan board is conservative enough on issues that have nothing to do with that job.

I read all the time that people are more and more cynical about politics.

I simply can’t imagine why.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan. 

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